“I don’t have a problem with it, but do they really need an entire parade?”
I overhear an elderly American woman kvetching to a busboy at my Tel Aviv hotel, and it’s obvious what she’s complaining about, what with rainbow flags adorning lampposts and shop windows across the city and several major roads shut down to make way for the estimated 200,000 people who have come from all over the world to partake in the celebration of Gay Pride Week. Colorful posters advertising various parties for every particular taste (“Tel-a-Beef,” a performance by last year’s gender-bending Eurovision champion Conchita Wurst, etc.) are impossible to ignore. Same-sex couples and families walk the streets and no one bats an eye. The city’s bars and nightclubs, attracting the most popular European DJ’s, teem with partygoers.
Tel Aviv is often derided as a “bubble” out of step in many ways with the rest of Israel, not only on matters pertaining to sexuality, and it’s rare that one would spot such open expressions of same-sex affection in Jerusalem, just 45 minutes away. But given that consensual sodomy was illegal up until 1988, and that an Orthodox rabbinate still enjoys a position of influence in shaping the country’s values (not to mention marriage laws), it’s nonetheless remarkable how far Israel’s LGBT community has come in such a short time.
Oded Frid, CEO of the country’s leading gay-rights group, the Agudah , describes the gay community’s progress in parallel to the success of Zionism itself. Sixty-seven years ago, he says, the Yishuv, or pre-state Israel, was a collection of “simple shacks,” today it is a land of “skyscrapers.” A country that once “import[ed] basic goods” is now “exporting high technology.” And a gay community that once consisted of “secret meetings in private homes” now celebrates with “hundreds of rainbow flags decorating our streets and one of the most fun and exciting parades in the world here in Tel Aviv.” Frid made these remarks to a conference celebrating the Agudah’s 40th anniversary at a conference organized by the San Francisco-based NGO A Wider Bridge , which connects LGBT groups and activists in Israel with their counterparts in the United States, many of whom are non-Jews with only a tenuous connection, if any, to Israel.
It was a momentous week for the LGBT community in the Jewish State. On June 10, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warmly welcomed a delegation from the Israel Gay Youth organization at his official residence, the first such visit hosted by an Israeli president and one that coincided with the first anniversary of his year in office. Rivlin, who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state (and who is a proponent of the Israeli annexation of the West Bank, an irredentist gambit known as “Greater Israel”), may seem an unlikely sympathizer of the LGBT cause. But embracing the marginalized of society accords with the main narrative theme of his presidency, which has been challenging Israelis of all races, religions, and lifestyles—its secular Jewish majority in particular—to stop viewing other groups as “demographic” challenges to be overcome but fellow countrymen to prosper alongside. Days earlier, I watched Rivlin deliver a superb speech at the annual Herzliya Conference, calling upon Israelis “to abandon the accepted view of a majority and minorities, and move to a new concept of partnership between the various population sectors in our society.”
That same morning, conference attendees joined a historic hearing at the Knesset, where for the first time the country’s legislative body took up transgender issues. The meeting represented another first in that it was also the initial gathering of the Knesset’s cross-party LGBT caucus, which boasts members from all the political blocs except the religious factions. The hearing was a who’s who of the Israeli political elite, with opposition leader Isaac Herzog and former Ambassador to the United States and current Kulanu party MK Michael Oren offering supportive remarks, in addition to a Likud representative (Amir Ohana, an openly gay Knesset candidate who narrowly missed entering parliament in the most recent election) delivering a message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Members heard the personal testimony of transgender teenagers, in addition to Marsha Botzer, a prominent transgender activist from Seattle. “I have testified quite a few times before in the U.S. legislature, but I don’t remember a scene ever like this,” Botzer told Haaretz. “For me, being able to speak at the Knesset was a life-giving, stunning, and daunting experience, not to mention having folks from my community speak out so powerfully.” Surat Shaan Rathgeber Knan, a British Jewish transgender activist , told me that he’s “been to the U.K. parliament many times and never seen members asking for tissues, and these weren’t crocodile tears.”
Reflecting the wide visibility achieved by the transgender community in recent years—from supportive statements by the president of the United States to the heavily publicized transitioning of former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner—the theme of this summer’s pride celebrations was “Tel Aviv Loves All Genders.” Shortly after Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair, gay city Councilman Yaniv Weizmanwrote an open letter inviting her to be a guest of honor at the parade. Yiscah Smith, an Orthodox Jew who once worked as an educator for Chabad and was married with six children before transitioning to a woman, related to conference attendees her continuing amazement at the progress Israel has made with respect to transgender issues. Living in Jerusalem in the 1980s, she said, “What is going on in this room right now, if you told me that the messiah was coming, I would believe that before this.”
In addition to transgender people, the conference gave voice to other groups within the Israeli LGBT firmament. Yaniv Jember last year founded an organization dedicated to promoting acceptance of gays within the Israeli Ethiopian community, where socially conservative mores dominate. He was proud to tell attendees that a “completely straight” Ethiopian bar invited his group to hold a party during the pride festivities. Jember’s organization is also unique among Ethiopians more broadly; he has been pleasantly surprised by the degree of interest the organization has received from non-Jewish gays back in Ethiopia, where homosexuality is illegal. Another speaker, a young, gay, Druze man who insisted that his name not be used for fear of reprisals over his speaking at a conference of gays and Israelis, said, “I’m very lucky to be born in Israel. … In Tel Aviv I can live my life as I am.”
These positive messages about Israel’s impressive but imperfect managing of its diversity complicate many of the dominant media narratives about the country, which invariably portray it as an increasingly xenophobic place that is shedding its democratic values in a turn toward some sort of Judeo-fascism. Because of this, antagonists of the Jewish State have long sought to deny, or otherwise explain away, the realities of LGBT life there. From the moment it was announced, the conference sparked controversy—not from religious reactionaries but rather from a small and vocal set of progressives, who claimed that the participants were engaged in “pinkwashing.” According to these individuals , Israel’s seeming acceptance of homosexuals (an exaggeration unto itself) is but a clever ploy to distract attention from its ongoing military occupation of the Palestinians.
Davis Mac-Iyalla knows first-hand what oppression looks like. A Nigerian gay activist, he was fired from his job as a school principal because of his sexual orientation, arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by police. He eventually sought asylum in the United Kingdom, where he works to improve the lot of the LGBT Nigerians he left behind. After accepting A Wider Bridge’s invitation to come to Israel and speak at the conference, he was angrily confronted by colleagues at UNISON, Britain’s largest public sector union, of which he is a member. In 2010, the union voted to boycott Israel, cutting off its ties with the Histadrut trade union confederation and demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador.
Mac-Iyalla was incredulous. “I always stand up and say, ‘Why are we boycotting?’ ” he told me. The move to target Israel struck him as particularly misplaced given his own ordeal back in Nigeria, and he was mystified at the lack of concern among progressives for the plight of LGBT people in places with far worse human rights records than the Jewish State. “Why do they say boycott Israel when Nigeria passed an anti-gay bill last year?” he asks, referencing a law modeled on Russia’s draconian measure banning so-called gay “propaganda.” “People were telling me I’m going to destroy my human rights record for going to Israel. In Palestine they said we are more afraid of ISIS and al-Qaida than Israel,” he said, relating conversations he had with Palestinians in the West Bank.
The most-high profile attendee, openly gay Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, was also attacked by activists in his city for delivering a speech at the conference, which he included as part of a trade mission to Israel. “The Israeli government is paying him to come be part of a propaganda conference that promotes Israel as a gay-rights haven in order to cover up the realities of apartheid,” Dean Spade, an associate law professor at Seattle University and member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, told the Seattle Times. Three years ago, Spade and his cohorts pressured the city’s LGBT Commission to cancel an event with a delegation of Israeli LGBT youth. Botzer, the transgender activist from Seattle, also came under a great deal of pressure from Spade and others to back out of the trip, but she too resisted calls to boycott, telling me that she wanted to experience the country for herself.
Due to the longtime presence of religious parties in Israeli government coalitions, and the ability of minority factions in bare-majority governments to block legislation, most strides in LGBT rights have come about as a result of judicial decisions. “The only reforms achieved through legislation pertain to rights of gays and lesbians as individuals and by amendments of existing laws,” says Michal Eden, a former Tel Aviv city councilwoman and LGBT legal advocate. A week before the pride celebration, the country’s National Labor Court ruled that employers cannot discriminate against citizens due to their gender identity.
But this method of legal progress may be beginning to change. Last week, Knesset members from the Likud and Kulanu parties partnered to introduce an employment anti-discrimination bill, marking the first time that the present coalition has attempted to pass pro-LGBT legislation. Their effort follows the failed attempt by an opposition MK to file a similar bill. The past few years have seen the rapid advancement of openly LGBT people on the Israeli right, a development that has proven exasperating for many gay activists, most of whom identify with the left.
“Within this party we can do much more than anyone,” declares Amir Ohana, chairman of Ga’ava BiLikud, the reigning right-wing party’s LGBT faction. He makes an argument similar to that propounded by gay Republicans in the United States, who say, not without reason, that gays will not make lasting advances until they persuade moderates and conservatives of the justice of their cause. From the vantage point of an Israeli right-wing territorial maximalist, it would be difficult to find a more convincing advocate for LGBT rights than Ohana. A tough-speaking, no-nonsense, bullet-headed former officer in the Shin Bet internal security service, he says the sorts of things that make hawks swoon. On the last day of the conference, I sat on a panel with him alongside three other Israelis, ostensibly to discuss the issue of pinkwashing and attitudes toward Israel in the global LGBT community. It wasn’t long, however, before the conversation slipped into an argument over the stalled peace process. Challenged by the lesbian activist Anat Nir, who claimed that Israeli gays, by dint of their status as a minority, must be sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, Ohana angrily retorted that there is no “occupation” of Palestinian lands, as “Judea and Samaria are Eretz Yisrael!” On his Facebook page, one of Ohana’s acolytes describes his political views as “Greater Israel with gay marriage in it.”
While Ohana credits the work of an earlier generation of left-wing Israelis for putting gay rights on the national agenda, specifically mentioning the deceased Meretz MK Shulamit Aloni, he says that the emergence of a loud and proud gay right has disrupted the once politically monotonous world of Israeli gay politics. “We thought we would have opposition within the Likud,” he said of his group’s formation. “We only got positive reactions from within the Likud but we got many [negative] reactions from the left wing because it was breaking a monopoly.” Ohana mentioned the support of Likud MK and Culture Minister Miri Regev, who, as part of this year’s election campaign, subjected herself to an interview with a drag queen and was one of two Likud Knesset members to march in the Tel Aviv parade. The mention of her name earned audible groans from the audience after another panel member, gay journalist and filmmaker Gal Uchovsky, pointed out that Regev had called Sudanese refugees to Israel a “cancer.” Ohana corrected him, stating that Regev had only called them “infiltrators.” (She has called them both and apologized .)
Uchovsky is one of Israel’s most visible gay celebrities. With his husband Eytan Fox, he has produced acclaimed LGBT-themed films like Yossi & Jagger (about a romance between two male IDF soldiers in southern Lebanon), Walk on Water (which details a Mossad agent’s befriending the gay adult son of a Nazi war criminal), and The Bubble (an Israeli-Palestinian gay romance). His cultural cachet becomes evident the moment we sit down for coffee at a trendy restaurant on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom stops by to pay his respects, as does his colorful wife, Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes, a media personality and co-owner of Yedioth Ahronoth, a leading daily. When she overhears us talking about gay issues, she whips out her cellphone and shows us a picture of a crouching, mustached man donning a trucker hat. It’s her, she proudly says, cross-dressing as part of an initiative by the website Walla! to help raise awareness of the transgender community. The photo was soon picked up by the New York Post’s Page Six, and she brags about how gossip columnist Richard Johnson wrote that she looks far younger than someone born in 1958.
Discussing the panel we both had sat on earlier in the week, Uchovsky observed that the past few years have seen “the coming out of the gay right … the gay community is not anymore left-wing, it’s divided like Israeli society is divided.” To illustrate how much the subject of LGBT rights is becoming divorced from traditional left-wing politics, he told a story of two young gay men who invited a right-wing rapper known as “The Shadow” to officiate at their wedding. “The Shadow,” whose real name is Yoav Eliasi, has gained notoriety for urging his fans to disrupt left-wing demonstrations, calling leftists “the real enemy, walking among us.” Asked how he felt about marrying a gay couple, Eliasi was nonplussed, telling the Israeli website Mako, “These guys are great, really cute kids. I wish them a lifetime of happiness. I didn’t have any doubts; I don’t care about sexual preference. The couple said that they love me and my message, and I see it as a great compliment.” Relating the story to me, and its improbable mixture of reactionary politics with progressive social change, Uchovsky could only shake his head, saying that he felt akin to an old man no longer hip with the times, like the elderly Holocaust survivor who, when Uchovsky was a young boy in school, reprimanded him and his classmates for laughing at his mustache.
Uchovsky has earned himself a fair degree of controversy as the country’s most prominent advocate of outing closeted gay public figures. Yet the latest target of his campaign, he admitted with some degree of surprise, is not the sort of gay conservative fixture whose concealment of his sexuality renders him liable to such unwanted disclosure, but a member of the left-wing Labor Party elected to the Knesset in 2013. “Mr. X,” as Uchovsky and others have called him, is a peculiar case, a man who was openly gay for years, made no attempt to hide his sexuality during the campaign, but decided to reenter the closet upon winning a seat in parliament. Last year, Uchovsky wrote an open letter to Labor Party leader Herzog demanding that he face the “elephant the size of the Azriely towers” and either force Mr. X to come out or evict him from the Knesset.
It is often said that the very existence of the State of Israel—the return of the Jews to their ancestral home, the revivification of Hebrew as a spoken language, the creation of a sovereign Jewish polity capable of defending itself from its adversaries—is a miracle. The flourishing of a vibrant gay community in the heart of the Middle East is a byproduct of that miracle and a marvel unto itself. The complex, often dichotomous nature of LGBT life in Israel was made no more apparent to me than the moment I exited a massive nightclub, whereupon I encountered a group of Hasidic Jews trolling for conscripts, offering to wrap phylacteries on any willing subject, sexual orientation be damned. But the sheer wonder of the achievement that is gay Israel doesn’t really strike you until you’re right in the heart of the Tel Aviv Pride Parade, standing amidst 200,000 other revelers, all of them celebrating—many of them oblivious to the incongruity—ways of being that are cause for stigmatization, legal harassment, and death sentences in lands just over the border.